Loved David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’? Here are 10 more brilliantly unconventional concert films to watch right now

Spike Lee’s life-affirming music movie will banish your lockdown blues – and there’s plenty more where that came from...

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‘Stop Making Sense’ (1984)

What is it: Director Jonathan Demme captured David Byrne’s band Talking Heads over four nights at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater in December 1983. The resulting movie redefined the concert film – consider American Utopia its spiritual sequel.

What’s special: Staging and choreography that errs on the side of performance art, ahead-of-its-time 24-track digital sound recording and the debut of Byrne’s famous ‘Big Suit’, a vastly oversized business suit that swamped his six-foot frame.

Watch it: Prime Video

‘Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets’ (2014)

What is it: Jarvis Cocker and co’s 2013 comeback tour culminated in a victorious homecoming show at Sheffield Arena, which forms the centrepiece of this warm-hearted movie.

What’s special: Rather than simply capture the action on stage, director Florian Habicht created a study into the soul of Sheffield itself, interviewing everyday local characters and longtime Pulp fans and tapping into the psychology of a city that celebrates modesty, community and humility.

Watch it: BFI Player

‘Shut Up And Play The Hits’ (2012)

What is it: LCD Soundsystem’s 2011 ‘retirement’ concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden may have proved to be premature, since the band returned to the stage four years later, but it was a great excuse to commit the group – plus friends including Arcade Fire and Soulwax – to tape.

What’s special: Directors Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace followed James Murphy for the 48 hour period incorporating the show, capturing the mixed feelings of calling time on his band at the peak of their powers.

Watch it: Prime Video

Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars (1979)

What is it: David Bowie’s ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars’ album made a superstar of Bowie and his band, but the plan was always to kill off the character at the height of his powers. That’s exactly what he did at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973, before director D. A. Pennebaker’s cameras.

What’s special: In the early ‘60s, D. A. Pennebaker was a pioneer of the intimate documentary filmmaking known as direct cinema. Ten years on, the backstage scenes here give you the feeling of being in Bowie’s dressing room yourself.

Watch it: Prime Video


‘Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!’ (2006)

What is it: The late Adam Yauch – working under the name Nathaniel Hörnblowér – directed this record of his group Beastie Boys performing at Madison Square Garden in New York on October 9, 2004.

What’s special: The camera operators, who comprised 50 fans provided with recording equipment by the band. The resulting movie is a fan’s-eye view of the show that preempted you, filming wobbly footage on your iPhone, by a good few years.

Watch it: YouTube


‘Wattstax’ (1973)

What is it: A document of the benefit concert commemorating the seventh anniversary of the 1965 riots in Watts, an African American neighbourhood in LA. Organisers Stax Records assembled a line-up including The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes and blues icon Albert King. The brilliant comedian Richard Pryor was compere.

What’s special: The film’s promotional materials promised “100,000 brothers and sisters turning on to being Black… telling it like it is!” Director Mel Stuart delivered a movie that empowered as much as it entertained.

Watch it: YouTube, Prime Video

‘The Cramps: Live At Napa State Mental Hospital’ (1981)

What is it: Psychobilly heroes The Cramps captured – in wobbly black and white on Sony Portapak – in a concert movie that has the feel of an illicit bootleg.

What’s special: The clue is in the title – it was filmed at the group’s free June 13, 1978 concert for the patients at California’s Napa State Mental Hospital. Entertainment or exploitation? You decide.

Watch it: YouTube

‘The Last Waltz’ (1978)

What is it: The Band – sometime Dylan backing group and revered album artists in their own right – were a volatile but brilliant entity. Happily, Martin Scorsese stepped up to capture their swansong show, on Thanksgiving Day, 1976, for posterity.

What’s special: There’s the way the movie weaves the story of The Band into the show, and the sense of occasion. And then there’s the guestlist: Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield, Bobby Charles, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood, and Neil Young. Yeah, we wish we there too.

Watch it: Prime Video

‘Baby Snakes’ (1979)

What is it: It’s a 1977 Halloween concert at New York City’s Palladium Theater by absurdist rocker Frank Zappa, from whom a conventional concert movie is the last thing you’d expect.

What’s special: Surreal claymation animation by animator Bruce Bickford and backstage goings-on featuring Zappa and crew. File under: dangerously trippy.

Watch it: Prime Video

‘Homecoming: A Film By Beyoncé’ (2019)

What is it: Beyoncé’s Coachella 2018 performance – Beychella, as some refer to it – interwoven with the creative journey behind it.

What’s special: The movie was co-directed by Beyoncé herself, meaning this was a rare chance to see a powerful creative force at work. It has gravitas to match the significance of the occasion – Beyoncé was the first Black woman to headline the USA’s best-known music festival.

Watch it: Netflix

American Utopia is out now

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